Martin Truex Jr.’s NASCAR journey just goes to show that NASCAR is anything but an individual sport.
Through the NASCAR Playoffs system, Truex is locked into contention for the Cup Series title at next week’s 2019 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Four drivers under the current format race for the title in South Beach, and Truex clinched his spot with a win in the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago in Virginia.
With two spots up for grabs after Kevin Harvick won last week at Texas Motor Speedway, it’s possible they both could be occupied by Truex’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. With points welcoming in the non-victors over the past three races, Busch and his No. 18 Toyota are 20 points ahead of the cutoff line, while Hamlin’s No. 11 trails Joey Logano by 20 for the last spot. The final race of this playoff round, with eight drivers in contention for Homestead’s final four, goes down on Sunday afternoon at the Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
The Mayetta, NJ native spoke to The Big Lead prior to Sunday’s race to talk about these developments. He’s not letting the No. 19 team’s secure status for Miami affect his mindset for a win on Sunday. In fact, he’s quite interested in having little, if anything, to lose on Sunday.
“Momentum’s big in this sport and we haven’t won at Phoenix yet and we’d like to. So we’re going to try our best to win,” Truex said. “It’s fun coming to the racetrack and not having any pressure, to be honest. It’s something that doesn’t happen very often in our sport. It’s almost like an all-star race for us this weekend in that there’s no point on the line. The only thing that matters to us is winning and that’s what we’re here to do.”
Playoff shenanigans are part of quite the whirlwind season for Truex. This is his first year with JGR, having taken over the No. 19 Toyota. This followed five seasons at Furniture Row Racing, where Truex made a true name for himself on the Cup Series circuit.
The career of Truex, a two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion (NASCAR’s equivalent of AAA baseball) hit a bit of a crossroads after 2013. His ride at Michael Waltrip Racing was permanently parked when the team folded, taking his No. 56 Toyota with him. The Denver-based FRR (the only NASCAR team set up west of the Mississippi River) came calling with an offer to drive their No. 78 car. In nine seasons of action, the team had just one Cup Series win. Truex struggled in his first year at the helm, but fortunes began to change with the addition of crew chief Cole Pearn in 2015.
Under collaboration with Pearn, the 78 car won 17 races from 2015-18. Their efforts culminated with a Cup Series title in 2017. When FRR was forced to shut down after losing primary sponsor Five-Hour Energy, Truex joined JGR’s elite group. Titular owner Joe Gibbs, a Super Bowl-champion head coach in the NFL, has won four Cup Series titles, most recently with Busch in 2015.
Truex was pleased that Pearn and several other FRR employees made the ride over, keeping up a sense of family. Its benefits are on full display to the tune of a series-best seven victories.
He has also enjoyed working with his contemporaries Busch and Hamlin. The pair has earned a combined 91 Cup Series victories, a majority of which have come in Gibbs vehicles. Nine have come this season.
“It’s all been really good. We’re trying to figure out how we can get all three of us in,” he said. “Obviously, for the company and everyone that works so hard there, builds race cars, puts all the effort in, it would be huge to have three chance. A 75 percent chance is a lot better than a 25 percent chance.
“It’s been a great season for the company, it’s been a lot of fun. I feel like we’ve all worked really well together, and that’s why all three of us are still standing here, all with a chance to get to Homestead.”
Team efforts have been prominently on display in the Phoenix garage. While pulling over on the track and letting them pass during Sunday’s event would be frowned upon at best and penalized at worst, Truex and his group vowed to help the pair accomplish their playoff goals to the best of their ability.
The most important moves the team can make, Truex hypothesizes, could come before a single lap is run.
“Once the green flag drops on Sunday, it’s a race and we all want to win it. You’re not going to give anybody a spot. You’re not going to pull over. You’re going to let them win against you. You’re going to do everything in your power to win,” he said. “But I think it’s all about team preparation leading into the weekend and throughout the weekend preparing for the race.”
The Gibbs arrival also afforded Truex a reunion with a fourth teammate, Erik Jones. Previous partners at FRR (which shared a technical alliance with Gibbs), Jones moved to No. 20 car after running his Cup debut alongside Truex in a 77-branding. Jones made this season’s playoff as well, but poor finishes in the opening three playoff races forced him into a first-round exit.
Truex was nonetheless pleased to see the progress his past and present teammate has been making.
“He’s done a good job. He’s a great teammate and a good kid. I enjoy racing with him.”
With this season winding down, Truex is pleased to finally have some relative stability in what has otherwise been a storied NASCAR career. His new contract has him locked up at JGR, one of NASCAR’s inarguable top teams, for the next several seasons. Change is nonetheless coming, as NASCAR is rolling out the next generation of stock cars, a new style known the Gen-7.
He’s confident that he and his team, no matter who’s by his side, will able to work with whatever challenges come their way.
“I would say, right now, I’m having as much fun as I’ve ever had racing. So I don’t see any end in sight,” he said. “This year was my first year on a new contract, so we have a few more years here. It’s nice to not have to worry about those things. You can just be able to go racing and show up at the racetrack and win every weekend. It’s the greatest feeling in the world and I can’t even explain it. I’m feeling lucky and having a lot of fun.”
“Working with the team and Joe Gibbs Racing and the support we get from everybody at Toyota, I feel like we can show up with any rules, any cars, draw up whatever you want we can build it as good as anyone. We want to go win with it,” Truex continued. “I’m excited about the future. It’s an exciting time in this sport. We’re really going in the right direction. Fans are engaged and excited, it’s the best I’ve ever seen since I’ve been doing this.
“It’s been a lot of fun. We’re going to just try and keep it going and just trying to have some fun with it.”
Catch Truex and No. 19 team in action on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC